Economy

Does Sex Work Beat Walmart Type Jobs?

The choice to do sex work mostly boils down to the bottom line.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com

Here’s something they never asked in The Book of Questions: Would you rather be a Walmart worker or a sex worker?

David Henry Sterry considered that very issue in a recent article on Nerve.com. Sterry signed up for sex work as a student in Hollywood at the age of 17 when he found that his income from a fried chicken restaurant did not pay the bills. His problem was one of basic math. Sterry's expenses ran to $500 per month; his wages only covered half of that. If he wanted to keep a roof over his head and food in his mouth, he would have to think of something else.

The “something else” came in the form of an offer to “party” with some local women for $100 per hour. Sterry considered the stigma, but decided that economically, it was worth it to “cross a line in the sand” because he had few skills that would translate into money. As he explains, the moral value of chicken frying did not trump the idea of making enough to survive :

“There’s a definite sociological pecking order when it comes to employment. If you ask a hundred people whether they’d rather be a heart surgeon or an elephant-shit shoveler, there’s a pretty good chance that at least 99 of them would extend their hand for the scalpel. Most people would say that frying chicken makes you a better person than selling sex. If you tell someone their mother is a whore, they will not invite you to lunch…But as a 17-year-old, I didn’t see frying chicken as being on the other side of that line. It didn’t seem morally or intrinsically better—and economically, it was roughly 66 times worse.”

Sterry goes on to describe the plight of a friend named Cindy, an attractive Los Angeles woman in her mid-20s who, while smart and well-read, did not finish high school. With two sons to support, she found herself struggling with irregular minimum wage jobs that paid $7.50 per hour. It wasn’t enough to live on by a long shot. Finally, she applied for a job at Walmart, which paid slightly more at $8.80 per hour. She didn’t get the job. This final blow to her self-esteem prompted Cindy to try out dancing at a strip club, where she found, to her surprise, that the women shared a deep camaraderie and seemed to have far more self esteem as they strutted their stuff than she ever had working at menial, low-wage jobs.

Suddenly, Cindy was making thousands of dollars a week. She was able to move into a three-bedroom apartment and buy her sons art lessons and karate classes. Cindy started escorting certain customers and made even more, earning enough to buy a good car. The downside is that she has nightmares about her family, especially her sons, finding out what she really does for a living (they think she’s a waitress at a fancy restaurant). But this anxiety is a price she’s willing to pay for being able to take care of herself and her family. At least for now.

Student debt, a crappy economy, dead-end jobs, lack of childcare, layoffs. There are many reasons why a person would be driven to think outside the box to earn a living, and some consider sex work to be a perfectly valid career choice.

In a sequel to the bestseller Freakonomics, authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner dedicated the first chapter in the book to the question, "Why aren't more women prostitutes?" They acknowledge that streetwalking is a tough slog, but they also point to the perks of being a high-end escort, including high wages and flexible hours. Why wouldn’t a woman want to do it?

The problem is that opportunities in sex work, like other forms of work, are impacted by factors like background, education level, genetic attributes, and race. And, of course, any person doing sex work in a place where it is illegal faces entanglements with the legal system. There’s also the problem of the relative brevity of the typical sex worker’s career, and other problems.

However, there’s a long history of women gaining advantages through sex work that were not readily available in any other path. In ancient Greece, female prostitutes could achieve independence and even significant influence in society, such as Aspasia, a high-class courtesan who ended up as the companion of the great statesman Pericles.

As Levitt and Dubner report, sex work was once much more common in the U.S. than it is today. They reckon that in the 1910s, 1 out of every 50 American women worked as a prostitute. This was largely because strict sexual mores prevented people from obtaining sex outside marriage by any other means, and women had limited choices for other forms of work. The authors estimate that at the low end, a prostitute made about $25,000 a year in today's dollars — not a whole lot, to be sure, but more than most Walmart workers earn today. Women employed at the fanciest brothel in Chicago, on the other hand, hauled in $430,000 annually. That's 1 percent territory.

What about today? Levitt’s research shows that the current average income of a street prostitute in Chicago is $27 per hour, but if the person is not using a pimp, freebies must be given to the police in order to avoid arrest. There’s also a high risk of violence. Levitt found that prostitutes who work with pimps appear to earn more, and are less likely to be arrested.

According to data compiled by Forbes, most prostitutes make more than they could earn at other low-skill jobs, even in places where sex work is legal. In Nevada, research shows that in 1973, a prostitute made $350 per week, rent-free, while a typical service worker made $135 per week. In Los Angeles in the early 1990s, street prostitutes did better money-wise than young women with similar qualifications and skills in service-sector jobs. A sample of 1,024 street prostitutes conducted between 1990 and 1991 revealed that streetwalkers made $23,845 per year, while female service workers made only $17,192.

One database puts the average current salary for prostitutes in Ohio at $41,000. Generally, mid-range online escorts who book their own clients can make around $200 to $300 per hour, though this number would go up in a big city. In New York, the highest ranked escort can earn over $5,000 in an hour. At that level, of course, substantial funds must be invested in designer clothes and expensive grooming.

So what about the benefits and costs of working at Walmart? A Walmart job is not without its own risks. If you take a position at the megastore, you should not be surprised if you end up dealing with wage theft, racial and gender discrimination, low wages, and poor working conditions. Walmart has had to settle suits for screwing over workers in a variety of ways, from forcing employees to work off the clock to wrongful termination.

Walmart might not land you in jail, but you could wind up homeless, which is also plenty terrifying. Recently, Pam Ramos wrote about her experience working at Walmart in Mountain View, CA, where she earns $400 every two weeks (she’d like to work more, but she’s only given part-time shifts). Her existence was always precarious, but Ramos became homeless when a health emergency pushed her over the financial cliff. She describes the constant fear and anxiety she lives with, and her concern about her family. The “dignity” of doing work inside the bounds of the law is probably hard to feel when you are hungry and sleeping on your son’s floor.

Walmart associates earn at least 12 percent less than the average retail worker. Career opportunities are also limited, and there is evidence that the company uses pay-cap systems to get rid of higher-paid veteran employees, so people may have to deal with brevity of earning potential there, too.

The significant risks associated with sex work are probably why prostitution generally declines in areas where women's incomes and opportunities are greater. But the reality is that with half of all Americans living in poverty or near-poverty, the risk-reward calculus for some means that sex work is worth it.

Yes, some do it for pleasure, independence and even status at the high end. But the choice to do sex work often boils down to the bottom line: people do it for the money. Would you?

Lynn Parramore is contributing editor at AlterNet. She is cofounder of Recessionwire, founding editor of New Deal 2.0, and author of "Reading the Sphinx: Ancient Egypt in Nineteenth-Century Literary Culture." She received her Ph.D. in English and cultural theory from NYU, and she serves on the editorial board of Lapham's Quarterly. Follow her on Twitter @LynnParramore.